In a letter by General George C. Marshall to his friend, General John S. Mallory, he outlined four essential lessons on leadership. The lessons conveyed were what he considered the best advice he could offer to a young military leader headed to war. While the world has certainly changed since the letter was written in 1920, and modern combat would prove barely recognizable through the eyes of preeminent soldiers and leaders from 100 years ago, the lessons that Marshall outlined are just as relevant today as the day they were written.
“To be a highly successful leader in war four things are essential, assuming that you possess good common sense, have studied your profession, and are physically strong.” (Marshall)
With this introductory sentence, General Marshall sets the stage by suggesting that his four essential lessons are only applicable if you already possess certain foundational characteristics, which he outlines as common sense, professional competence, and physical fitness. These three characteristics are just as pertinent today. While there are certain professions that may not require a high-level of physical fitness, the importance of physical health and wellness is beyond reproach.
The 4 Essentials to Combat Leadership:
1. “When conditions are difficult, the command is depressed, and everyone seems critical and pessimistic, you must be especially cheerful and optimistic.”
It is often said that optimism is like hope—99% choice. Marshall had the opportunity to serve and lead during some notoriously challenging circumstances and learned first-hand that optimism can have a material impact on the experience and performance of a team. As a leader, try demonstrating fierce optimism the next time your team is experiencing a stressful challenge and evaluate the impact it has on those you lead. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in the impact; and it might just surprise you.
2. “When evening comes, and all are exhausted, hungry and possibly dispirited, particularly in unfavorable weather at the end of a march or in battle, you must put aside any thought of personal fatigue and display marked energy in looking after the comfort of your organization, inspecting your lines and preparing for tomorrow.”
This second essential lesson provides two opportunities for value creation. The first and most obvious is the value of positive energy, demonstrated confidence, and marked charisma. Fighting the feeling of personal fatigue or stress and deliberately displaying high energy and enthusiasm will undoubtedly affect the psyche of your team. The second, far less predictable, impact is that even by “faking it” your body will likely respond to your mind’s intention—resulting in an increased capacity for high energy and activity.
3. “Make a point of extreme loyalty, in thought and deed, to your chiefs personally; and in your efforts to carry out their plans or policies, the less you approve the more energy you must direct to their accomplishment.”
This is probably the most challenging essential lesson as it requires an uncommon commitment to humility, responsibility, and loyalty. This lesson is less about “blind obedience” and more about team and organizational duty. Leaders should always seek to privately challenge the status quo and provide honest and critical feedback to both superiors and subordinates alike. Marshall outlines this essential lesson to convey the importance of organizational perception, and the value of conspicuous commitment to the team.
4. “The more alarming and disquieting the reports received or the conditions viewed in battle, the more determined must be your attitude. Never ask for the relief of your unit and never hesitate to attack.”
Marshall’s fourth essential lesson pertains to the importance of “staying the course.” Many of the most successful individuals and organizations experienced failure upon failure, right up until the point they achieved success. This, together with common knowledge on the rate of success versus failure, would then suggest that most leaders and individuals “throw in the towel” right before they could have ultimately succeeded. Many notable accomplishments in both combat and business were immediately preceded by a series of almost insurmountable challenges that eventually and without warning gave way to high achievement. Marshall proposes that if we surrender to perceived failure, or call in for support or replacement during a trying battle, project, or engagement, it is likely that we will never enjoy the triumph of high achievement. And, if we fail, as Theodore Roosevelt famously said:
“At least we fail while daring greatly,
so that our place shall never be with those cold and timid souls
who neither know victory nor defeat.”